HL Deb 17 July 2001 vol 626 cc1373-7

2.55 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to move forward on proposals to tax cars on entering traffic-congested urban areas.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the Transport Act 2000 provides enabling powers for local authorities in England and Wales to introduce a congestion charging scheme as part of a local transport plan to relieve traffic problems and fund improvements to public transport services. The Greater London Authority Act 1999 gives similar powers to the mayor of London. The mayor and a number of authorities outside London are considering using these powers to develop charging schemes.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that Answer. Will he tell us frankly whether he is in favour of the proposals put forward by Ken Livingstone over the past 24 hours and in the papers last night and today? Does he expect them to be repeated in other major cities? Does he think they will help? What effect will queues and delays have on cars entering the central zone, from Knightsbridge to St James's or Green Park, if they have to stop to pay £5 as they go through a checkpoint? Would it not be better to concentrate on the earlier plan of getting the utilities in London—electricity, gas, water and cable TV—to dig their holes in the main road at the same time rather than one after the other, seriatim, as they do at present?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am all in favour of the holes being dug at the same time to try to reduce delays. I do not think that the mayor's plan involves people stopping and paying £5. Cameras will take photographs and drivers can either pay in advance or pay afterwards. The Government have given local authorities and the GLA the power to bring forward proposals in relation to charging schemes. That is what the mayor of London has done. He is now consulting on those proposals. It will be for the Government to consider those proposals when he puts them to us. And he has not done that yet.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that if the congestion charging achieves a 15 per cent reduction in traffic congestion in central London and raises £200 million for public transport, that will be a prize well worth winning?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend. One has to look at the scheme and see whether it aims to achieve that. We obviously think in principle that such schemes could achieve that; otherwise we would not have given powers to local authorities, the GLA and the mayor to produce such schemes.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, what consideration have the Government given to the impact of such a charge on the workings of the House of Commons and of this House? Have the Government thought about that? Have they any plans as to how it might be dealt with?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, as I understand the proposal made by the mayor, it will cost drivers £5 to come into central London. Should Members wish to come by car to the House of Commons or the House of Lords where there are car-parking arrangements, they might have to pay £5. I am not sure that that would necessarily impact adversely on the workings of this House—unless the noble Lord has some other view in relation to that.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that the mayor of London has already caused a great deal of traffic congestion in central London by blocking up and making one-way streets in the middle of London so that it is almost impossible for a taxi to come from Euston, King's Cross or St Pancras down to Westminster?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, it would be unwise for me to comment on the road schemes of the mayor. I have seen taxis arrive from Euston and King's Cross so the journey is not completely impossible. But I think that complaints about that should be taken up with the mayor rather than me.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, first I shall quickly declare an interest as chair of the Greater London Assembly. Does the Minister agree that this is a charge rather than a tax, and that the charge will be ring-fenced so that it is used to improve public transport? If that laudable aim is to be achieved, does he agree that, on reflection, government support for the companies likely to be running the Tube is correct, given that they will be conferred "equal priority"—to use his words—to improve stations as well as lines and trains? However, it must be a matter of common sense that what passengers need is for the trains to work and to be able to move swiftly through to their destinations.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I shall answer the first part of the question put by the noble Baroness, but not the second part. This Question does not concern the Tube; it is a Question about congestion charging. Yes, I agree that we are referring here to a charge and not to a tax.

My noble friend Lord McIntosh has just whispered in my ear, and I have received confirmation by a note, that the mayor and the GLA do not determine where one-way streets should be sited around Euston and King's Cross stations, it is the London Borough of Camden. Perhaps I may redirect the inquiries of the noble Baroness to that local authority.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, bearing in mind the fact that company car drivers will be able to reclaim their £5 a day, that commercial traffic will recoup the sum by charging higher prices, and that the rich will be affected hardly at all because they have got plenty of money anyway, is it not only the poor who will be disbarred from central London, and thereby be disadvantaged by the scheme?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, my noble friend has made points which it may well be appropriate to submit to the consultation on the detail of the scheme. Once all the points have been considered in that consultation, it will then be for the mayor and the GLA to decide what they will do in relation to the scheme.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord will be able to give some comfort to those of us who are anxious that Ministers should not suffer any inconvenience or the burden of personal expenditure when they bring their cars to this place? We understand that the rest of your Lordships are not a matter of any importance to the Government.

While I am on my feet, perhaps I may echo what was said by my noble friend about holes in the road. They are caused and occupied by arrogant people who care not a curse for the convenience of the public. Does the noble and learned Lord agree that it is time that Ministers spoke to them fairly sharply?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, first, perhaps I may express my profound thanks to the noble Lord, who has sought to look after my interests in every single way over the past four years. I do not know what is the position in relation to Ministers, just as I do not know what is the position in relation to noble Lords. No doubt, if a group either of noble Lords or Members of the other place wishes to make representations to the mayor and the GLA on this issue, they will do so.

So far as concerns holes in the road, perhaps I may say how enthusiastically I endorse the proposal that holes in the road should be kept to a minimum and that such holes should be dealt with in a manner most efficient for the travelling public. That is a point on which I believe all noble Lords would agree.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I appreciate that the Minister may not wish to respond to questions put to him as regards the Tube. However, does he agree that, were the Government's proposals as regards the Tube to be as unfortunate as everyone other than the Government expects, they would have an effect on the congestion charge which might be described as "knock-on" in more senses than one?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the congestion charge seeks to reduce congestion in central London. During the course of the consultation, it is for individuals and groups to decide whether they will do so or whether they will not. Having refused to respond to the question put to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, as regards the Tube, it would be churlish of me to answer the noble Earl, Lord Russell.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, during the passage of the Transport Bill 2000 the noble and learned. Lord's predecessor made much of the need to improve the public transport system before a congestion charge was introduced. Can the noble and learned Lord tell the House what improvements have been made to London's transport infrastructure now that the system for congestion charging is being introduced?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I accept entirely and support the proposition that before a congestion charge is introduced, improvements have to be made to public transport. That has always been a part of the Government's position. In their transport strategy, the mayor and the GLA accept the same approach. They have proposed improvements to various kinds of transport. No doubt, in the course of the consultation, that issue will be considered.